Chapel Hill has earned a reputation as an island driving social change amidst an ocean of suppression and prejudice over the years, but that by no means indicates an idyllic community — whether you’re examining the civil rights movement of the ’60s or the troubles of today.
Occasionally referred to as “the second Civil War,” the struggle for civil rights represents a time of turmoil and turbulence in our nation’s history. Deep-rooted battles for and against changes in American society, culture and politics were being fought across the nation, and forces spanning generational and cultural divides pushed forward through triumph and tragedy toward a brighter future.
In 1832, William Gaston spoke on campus in favor of the abolition of slavery, and 24 years later UNC professor Benjamin Hedrick, who was also an alumnus of the college, was dismissed from the university for his public support of the anti-slavery movement. When Frank Porter Graham, for whom the student union is named, took over the position of university president in 1930, UNC continued to push academic and artistic endeavors supporting the progressive movement in the American South.
These ideas and attitudes began to come to a head in the early ‘60s, and a sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro on February 1 of 1960 directly inspired a similar effort on Franklin Street. When a group of black students from Lincoln High entered Colonial Drug on February 28, 1960, they sat at a booth and requested to be served. They refused to leave when their request was denied, and they were subsequently arrested on trespassing charges.
Protests, pickets and sit-ins became a frequent occurrence on Franklin Street and elsewhere in Chapel Hill in the years that followed. By the time of the famous “Walk for Freedom” from Durham to Chapel Hill, hardly a day went by without some form of civil disobedience taking place. Local authorities tended to shy away from using force and protests were largely allowed to continue, but police also did little to protect the protesters from beatings and humiliation. Demonstrators were yelled at, beaten with sticks, urinated upon – some even had ammonia thrown on them by irate business owners. Despite all this, there are no records of demonstrators responding with violence. Many hoped for Chapel Hill to be the first southern town to formally desegregate at the local level, but the decision was largely left to business owners until the official passage of the federal Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Two business began allowing access to African-Americans well before the passage of the Civil Rights Act were movie theaters: the Carolina Theater and The Varsity. Both adopted a more “open” policy by 1962, but like many civil rights victories, the win was hard-fought and only partial. It did set the stage, however, for other demonstrations and desegregation efforts in the following years.
After the sit-ins began in February, 10 religious groups banded together to sponsor efforts to desegregate the Varsity Theater. Patrons of the theater signed pledge cards that indicated their support for any business, the theater included, that would give equal service to all customers. The effort continued in 1961, when the owner of the Carolina Theater refused to show “Porgy and Bess” – a movie with a predominately African-American cast – and more demonstrations erupted. The Varsity adopted a plan to only allow black students with valid identification to attend, but this effort was an unmitigated failure. Fiercer protests and pickets led to both theaters finally allowing unrestricted access to all in February of 1962.
By 1963, lines were clearly drawn around businesses that would not be desegregated without legal reason to do so. Some restaurants and businesses in Chapel Hill were ahead of the curve when it came to fair and equal treatment, but others stood stuck in conservative tradition.
As fear of communism swelled and the “Red Scare” swept through the United States, left-leaning politics were used as a pretense for investigation and detainment – especially since conservatism was synonymous with anti-communism. North Carolina’s General Assembly passed a “Speaker Ban” in June of 1963 that forbade known members of the Communist Party from speaking on campus, as well as those who had invoked the Fifth Amendment during investigations of Communist activities. Already a fearful piece of legislation, this law and the hostile climate that created it was used against local demonstrators and civil rights leaders, creating a sort of forced peace on the streets of Chapel Hill under the threat of association with Russia and the fear of being accused of treason.
Much like how the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, didn’t change attitudes or erase prejudice and racism overnight, the passage of the Civil Rights Act changed the landscape but kept the bedrock intact — a foundation we still feel the effects of today. The struggle for equality and equity in Chapel Hill would continue, from the strike of support staff at the university to the continued political success of Jesse Helms.
The next piece of this series will focus on the famous Food Worker’s Strike of 1968.